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County leaders gather to address housing needs

Perham City Manager Kelcey Klemm, left, was part of a panel discussing housing needs in and around Otter Tail County during a dialogue session at the Bigwood Event Center in Fergus Falls May 9. Pictured with Klemm are Jane Alexander of Churches United in Moorhead (center) and Britton Ramsey of Midwest Minnesota Community Development in Detroit Lakes. Tom Hintgen/FOCUS

Communities in and near Otter Tail County are pulling together to address housing needs.

With housing costs up and incomes down in many parts of the county, people are often spending more than 30 percent of their take-home pay on housing, and community leaders want to develop a plan to better meet the needs of renters or potential homeowners.

Representatives from the private and public sectors, as well as non-profit organizations, gathered in Fergus Falls last Friday to address the issue.

Housing shortages, affordable housing, home loans and grants, and rental properties were discussed, among other topics.

The all-day gathering, called the Housing and Community Dialogue, was held at Bigwood Event Center. It drew attendees from all around the county, including some from Perham.

Perham’s City Manager, Kelcey Klemm, and Economic Development Director, Chuck Johnson, spoke on specific needs related to Perham’s current housing shortage. The shortage has been brought about by rapid business growth and the resulting job opportunities, which has brought an influx of new workers to town.

They said Perham hopes to address the shortage by building more housing units, and by working on cooperative efforts with neighboring communities like New York Mills. Perham also offers various housing assistance programs to help make homeownership more affordable.

As noted on the Perham city website, the community has added more than 102 rental units in the past five years, and has over 80 build-ready residential lots for sale, starting at $11,000.

The website also notes that employers such as KLN Family Brands, Perham Health, Kit Masters and Arvig are looking for more employees.

“Job growth is intertwined with housing,” said Johnson.

“Our Perham website not only lists job openings but also is a one-stop shop for housing,” said Klemm. “We’re fortunate, also, in that employer-assisted housing programs exist and that we as a city have assistance through the Perham HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority).”

Pelican Rapids City Administrator Don Solga and Mayor Ben Woessner also spoke about housing shortages.

Solga said more housing is needed in Pelican Rapids for people seeking employment at the town’s turkey plant. He and Woessner noted that, with the recession mostly over, now is a good time to make something happen in the way of new housing units.

A key to the success of any new units is that they be affordable.

Mary Tingerthal, commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, spoke on the topic of affordable housing.

“We continually make efforts to help people with low and moderate incomes,” said Tingerthal. “We see ourselves as a pump prime, working with other entities to share the risk with housing projects.”

The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency partners with lenders throughout the state to offer home loans with affordable payments. The agency also offers loans and tax credits to develop new apartments and repair older apartments.

Colleen Landkamer, of USDA Rural Development, said her agency is often referred to as a ‘best kept secret.’

“Most people don’t think of USDA when it comes to housing needs,” she said. “We work with direct loans for single-family homes. The key word is partnership, but what works in one community may not work in another. It’s all about making the (housing) puzzle come together.”

USDA also has loans and grants for home repairs, weatherization and modernization.

Another agency working to assist communities is the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation, based in Detroit Lakes. This non-profit organization provides affordable loans for home purchases and refinancing.

Britton Ramsey, who works with the corporation, helps people with down payment assistance and other services.

As an example, she said her agency can assist a family with an annual income of $45,000 obtain a housing loan at a rate of $1,087 per month. Current interest rates, she said, are close to 3.9 percent.

Midwest Minnesota also manages rental properties that accommodate low-income individuals, people with disabilities and senior citizens. They also restore buildings for affordable rental housing.

Other speakers at the Housing and Community Dialogue were Fergus Falls Mayor Hal Leland, Warren Hanson of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and Jane Alexander of Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead.

Also in attendance were Otter Tail County Commissioners Doug Huebsch of Perham and Lee Rogness of Fergus Falls.

Huebsch noted that attaining new housing units is tied to long-term interest rates. Rogness said he sees a need for new, safer, one-level dwellings for senior citizens.

Break-out sessions in the early afternoon addressed the topics of single-family rehab and construction, multi-family new construction, affordable workforce housing and supportive housing and housing needs of special populations.

Facilitators included Hal Clapp and Robyn Bipes of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, Dara Lee of Clay County HRA and John Patterson of Minnesota Housing.

“There’s no silver bullet when it comes to successfully addressing housing needs,” said Klemm. “We’ve done quite a bit in the past, but there’s still lots more to do.”